In an unprecedented appearance before a Westminster committee, MI5 head Andrew Parker, MI6 chief Sir John Sawers and GCHQ director Sir Iain Lobban detailed the “ongoing threat” to the UK.
They also claimed revelations by the former US intelligence operative Edward Snowden had seriously damaged the country’s security, with organisations such as al-Qaeda “lapping up the information” and reconfiguring their communications systems as a result.
The majority of the 34 plots had been thwarted by the intelligence and security agencies, Mr Parker said, but there were still “thousands” in Britain who supported violent extremism. He also said “hundreds” of British citizens had made their way to Syria since the civil war started to join jihadist groups.
He said so-called “terrorist tourism” – where British nationals travel abroad for terror training before returning to the UK to plot attacks – was “a very important strand” of the threat faced by the country.
Mr Parker also said the civil war in Syria had been a magnet for hundreds of British nationals looking for the opportunity for “jihadi” activity, many of whom had come into contact with al-Qaeda-supporting groups before returning to the UK.
“There have been persistent attempts of attacks of terrorism in this country,” he said. “The number since 7/7, there have been 34 plots toward terrorism that have been disrupted in this country at all sizes and stages.
“I’ve referred publicly that one or two of those are major plots aimed at mass casualty that have been attempted each year. Of that 34, most of them have been disrupted by active detection and intervention by the agencies and the police.
“One or two of them have failed because they just failed. The plans didn’t come together.”
The three men’s appearance before the intelligence and security committee (ISC) comes amid intense debate over their agencies’ role, after the disclosures by Mr Snowden of the surveillance activities of GCHQ and its US counterpart, the National Security Agency (NSA).
Documents leaked by Mr Snowden – who is in Moscow seeking sanctuary from the US authorities – have shown the agencies are able to tap into the internet communications of millions of citizens through GCHQ’s Tempora programme, while the NSA has bugged the phone calls of dozens of world leaders.
The ISC, chaired by former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, has already carried out a limited investigation into claims GCHQ used the NSA’s Prism programme, which gathers information from internet companies, to circumvent UK laws.
Although the committee cleared the agency of any wrongdoing in the 197 specific intelligence reports it looked at, it is now undertaking a wider inquiry into whether the laws governing surveillance are adequate.
Asked how concerned he was about “terrorist tourism”, Mr Parker told the ISC: “It has grown recently and is growing at the moment, because of Syria.
“Syria has become a very attractive place for people to go for that reason – those who support or sympathise with the al-Qaeda ideological message. We’ve seen low hundreds of people from this country go to Syria for periods and come back – some large numbers are still there – and get involved in fighting.”
Mr Parker added: “It is a very important strand of the threat we face, the way in which there is interaction between people who live in this country who sympathise with or support the al-Qaeda ideology and then travel to areas where they meet these al-Qaeda groupings, either al-Qaeda itself in south Asia or some of these other groupings across other regions.
“The attractiveness to these groupings is that they meet British citizens who are willing to engage in terrorism and they task them to do so back at home, where they have higher impact, in this country. We’ve seen that played out in previous plots here, including 7/7.”
He said that increasingly since the 7 July attacks, the direct threat from al-Qaeda had been supplemented by threats from areas such as Africa and Yemen.
Sir John said that, after incidents such as the assaults on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria and a Kenyan shopping mall this year, there was “no doubt at all” that the threat of terrorist attacks on UK citizens and interests around the world was rising.
The spies who came in from the cold for an exercise in public relations
There was a time when nobody would even admit they existed, but the three men charged with heading the UK’s security services broke cover to attend the first public hearing of parliament’s intelligence and security committee.
They were neither James Bond types nor snoopers; maybe more akin to the grey men who populated Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Just like George Smiley in John Le Carre’s famous novels, they would have blended into almost any background.
Andrew Parker of MI5, Sir John Sawers of MI6 and Sir Iain Lobban of GCHQ would not have looked out of place in any boardroom or firm of solicitors.
And they were very keen to point out that their agents were nothing like James Bond.
Sir John also wanted to disabuse MPs of any notion that the agencies had magical powers.
“We are not crystal ball gazers,” he said in answer to Lord Logan’s question about how they had failed to predict the biggest events since the Second World War, including the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Arab Spring, despite having a budget of £2 billion.
It soon became clear this was a public relations exercise, intended to portray the agencies as ordinary people doing an extraordinary job who are only concerned with “protecting freedom and democracy”, as Mr Parker put it.
Are they snoopers? Sir Iain, the man in charge of the snoopers, looked shocked and insisted that anybody wanting to deliberately snoop on innocent communications “would be shown the door”.
After an hour and a half of quick-fire questions, the three disappeared back into the shadows, no doubt hoping we all feel a little bit more secure about what they do for security.
MI5: Attack on newspaper hit headlines
Andrew Parker has been director-general of MI5 for just six months but has been in the higher echelons of the domestic security service for many years.
Last month, he made a controversial speech attacking the Guardian newspaper for publishing documents relating to GCHQ’s operations, which he said had caused “enormous damage” to the UK’s national security.
His speech led to calls from mainly Conservative MPs for legal action to be taken against the newspaper.
The 51-year-old is known for being quietly spoken, while having a tough inner streak.
Previously, he was director of counter-terrorism at MI5 and was in that post on 7 July, 2005, when suicide bombers murdered 52 people in London.
In Whitehall, MI5 has won much of the credit for successfully containing the jihadist threat in the UK.
Mr Parker has spent his entire career at MI5, having been recruited in 1983, the same year as Sir Iain Lobban, the head of GCHQ, joined his organisation.
Mr Parker arrived at MI5 in through the traditional route of being recruited while a student at Cambridge.
His only break from the service came when he was seconded to HM Customs and Excise as director of intelligence in 1999.
MI6: Fast-track spy move for St Andrews graduate
Sir John Sawers is a career diplomat and spy who became head of MI6 in 2008.
He is responsible for “getting the secrets from other countries and organisations they would rather we did not know”. He is highly regarded in Downing Street and within the political establishment as a whole.
The St Andrews University graduate has the most varied career of the three spy chiefs. He joined the Foreign Office in 1977 and was almost immediately seconded to MI6, serving in the Middle East in places such as Yemen and Syria. He was political officer in Damascus in 1982.
In the mid-1980s, he returned to his Foreign Office career, serving as desk officer in the European Union department in 1984 and private secretary to the minister of state in 1986.
He became a prominent public figure in 2001 when he was one of Tony Blair’s foreign affairs advisers following the 9/11 attacks. He also worked on the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.
Sir John was responsible for setting up the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was toppled, and then became the UK’s permanent representative to the United Nations before taking up his role at MI6 in 2008.
GCHQ: Man at the top who likes to keep low profile
Sir Iain Lobban has been the director of GCHQ – Government Communications Headquarters – since 2008.
Of the three intelligence chiefs, he has kept the lowest profile and is the most reticent to make public pronouncements.
This may be because he has had to deal with more bad headlines than his two intelligence colleagues, not least the revelations by the US defector Edward Snowden and complaints about the UK snooping on its allies.
The Snowden controversy has at the very least forced a complete overhaul of his department’s communications system.
Sir Iain has spent his entire career at GCHQ, joining after graduating from Leeds University in 1983 and climbing up the ranks of the service based at Cheltenham in Gloucestershire.
He has been on the board of GCHQ since 2001, making him one of the central figures in the war on terrorism since the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York.
The Everton football fan was knighted for services to national security this year.
He lists his interests as music, cricket, photography and travel and is married with one daughter.